Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Oconee School Board Approves $90 Million Fiscal Year 2023 Budget With Pay Raises And New Staff Positions

***Millage Rate Drop Included***

The Oconee County Board of Education, at its final meeting of the school year last week, approved a $90.2 million Fiscal Year 2023 expenditure budget that includes salary increases for certified and classified staff and 19 new staff positions.

The budget is 4.0 percent higher than the $86.7 million Fiscal Year 2022 budget and includes, for the first time since before the pandemic, full state funding of the Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula.

The budget approved by the Board includes revenues of $91.9 million, up 6.4 percent from the $86.4 million in the Fiscal Year 2022 budget.

The new budget includes a projected Fund Balance of $32.5 million, up from the projected balance of $28.3 in Fiscal Year 2022.

In the budget approved, 47.2 percent of the revenue comes from local taxes, largely property tax, with the state making up the rest.

In the current Fiscal Year 2022, local revenue was a higher 49.0 percent of the total.

The adopted budget is predicated on a drop in the millage rate from its current 16.5 to 16.25.

Chief Financial Officer Liz Harlow told the Board at the meeting on June 6 that she did not have the final figures for the county’s Tax Digest, and, depending on the final figures, the 16.25 millage rate could represent a tax increase for county voters.

Local Revenue Details

In her first budget presentation to the Board at its work session on May 2, Harlow said the actual funds available to Oconee County Schools was $122.6 million.

Screen Shot Of The Vote To Approve Budget 6/6/2022
Wayne Bagley, Amy Parrish (Hidden)
Superintendent Jason Branch, Argo, Burgess,
Michael Ransom (L-R)

That $122.6 million figure includes a projected fund balance of $30.7 million at the end of this fiscal year on June 30, rather than the $28.3 projected when the Fiscal Year 2022 Budget was adopted a year ago.

The local revenue in the adopted budget consists of $40.3 in Property and Ad Valorem Taxes, and $3.1 million from other local taxes and sources, including real estate transfer taxes, Medicaid reimbursements, facility rentals, and interest earned on funds, Harlow told the Board at that May 2 meeting.

Harlow said she is projecting a 7.43 percent growth in the county tax digest, producing, with the 16.25 millage rate, an increase of $1.1 million in Property and Ad Valorem Tax revenue.

Harlow said the Tax Digest calculations are not final and the Board will not set the final millage rate until Aug. 1.

Oconee County Tax Commissioner Jennifer Riddle must determine how much of the growth in the Tax Digest is the result of new use of property, or real growth, and how much is the result of market forces changing the value of unchanged property.

Since local governments have the option to reduce millage rates to offset increases in property value from market forces, the state requires public hearings on rates that do not offset that inflationary growth.

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners on June 7 adopted its budget without stating is millage rate, and Commission Chair John Daniell said the rate will be adjusted so that there will be no increase in county property taxes.

State, Federal Revenue Sources

The adopted School Board budget for Fiscal Year 2023 lists $58.7 million in QBE funds, minus $11.5 million for the local contribution.

The Fiscal Year 2022 Budget listed $55.5 million in QBE funds, minus $10.8 in the local contribution. It also listed $1.9 million in austerity reduction.

At the June 6 meeting, Harlow presented a separate budget for federal funds, which the Board also adopted.

That budget lists $4.7 million in revenue and spending, with the bulk, $2.4 million, coming to Oconee County Schools for its school nutrition program.

An additional $1.4 million is from the Individuals With Disability Education Act (IDEA).

The Board did not adopt a federal funds budget when it adopted its regular budget last June.

Budget Expenditures

Harlow told the Board that 71.8 percent of the expenditures in the Fiscal Year 2023 regular budget is for instruction ($64.8 million), and 5.8 percent ($5.3 million) is for instructional support.

The remaining 22.4 percent ($20.1 million) is for general support services, including administration, upkeep of buildings and grounds, and transportation of students.

The budget includes $1.6 million for 19 new positions in Oconee County Schools, $1.8 million for salary increases for certified employees, and $0.5 million for salary increases for classified employees.

Certified employees will get a $2,000 salary increase, and classified employees will receive a 3 percent salary increase, she reported.

The new personnel are 15 teachers, three paraprofessionals, and one payroll specialist.

The budget includes $8.0 million for operations, which Harlow said at the May 2 meeting includes “diesel, utilities, Internet access, instructional resources, and other similar needs.”

Board Questions

At the end of her presentation on May 2, Board Member Tim Burgess asked Harlow how much the 2.5 percent that Oconee County Schools pays to the county government as a fee for collection of school taxes “will be for Fiscal 23?”

Screen Shot Of Burgess, Ransom, Harlow (L-R) 5/2/2022

Harlow said it “will be a little bit over a million dollars.”

The actual figure, shown on the budget documents Harlow presented, is $1,033,352.

Burgess then asked if she had already “taken that out of consideration for the revenue you are showing us?”

The amount is shown as a negative on the spreadsheet Harlow presented to the Board, and she answered “Yes Sir” to Burgess.

“That’s a million dollars that is assessed by the Board for the collection of taxes for the operations of the schools that the county keeps before ever collect anything for their expenses? Correct?” he continued.

“Yes, right,” Harlow said.

Ongoing Complaint

Burgess then changed subjects, but he has complained in the past about this fee.

The county funds the operations of the Constitutional Officers, including the Tax Commissioner and the Sheriff’s Office.

It also funds the Property Appraisal office, which provides the data used by the Tax Commissioner in computing and collecting taxes.

Burgess then turned to the QBE, asking how much additional money Oconee County schools was getting this year because the austerity cuts were removed.

Harlow said it was $1.9 million, which is the figure shown in the budget she produced for Fiscal Year 2022. She did not show any austerity reduction in the current budget. (The actual amount is $1,890,617.)

“So there’s an additional 1.9 million for Fiscal 23, that we got it this year that we didn’t have last year because of the increased funding for formula that the state has provided? Right?” Burgess asked.

“That’s correct,” Harlow said.

Pay Raise

Burgess then turned to the pay increases reflected in the budget, asking how much of the $2.3 million budgeted for pay increases was coming from the state and how much of the money was coming from local sources.

Harlow said that “for certified employees the local cost is approximately $500,000" and “for classified employees I estimate that to be between 25 and 30,000 dollars that will be funded” by the state.

That is out of $465,000, she said, meaning the local cost will be another $435,000.

“So 900 to a million dollars in pay expenses that are included for our employees in this school system in this budget that are being paid for by the local budget, not the state? Correct?” Burgess asked.

“That’s correct,” Harlow said.

Millage Rate

Burgess said he had a last question regarding the 16.25 millage rate.

“Do you know how long its been since the millage rate for the school system was that low?" he asked.

Harlow said it was 16.3 in 2003, but Burgess wanted her to look to see when it was actually at or below 16.25.

“I will look into that for you,” Harlow said.

The only other Board member to ask a question was Chair Kim Argo, who wanted Harlow to specify the expenditure per student in the budget.

Harlow said the figure is $10,511. It is $10,349 in the Fiscal Year 2022 budget.

History of Millage Rate

At the May 9 meeting of the Board, Harlow reported that the 16.25 millage rate is the lowest the Board has approved going back to 1999, when it was 16.45. She said she could not find data from earlier than 1999.

The rate had been 16.3 in both 2002 and 2003.

Prior to 2014, however, the Board had added additional property taxes to cover debt service. In 2003, that additional amount was 1.7 mills, for a total millage rate o 18.0.

Burgess noted that the availability of the Education Local Option Sales Tax revenue has allowed the Board to shift the tax burden to sales taxes from property taxes.

No other Board member asked any questions about the budget at that meeting or at the June 6 meeting.

At the June 6 meeting, Harlow said “when we receive the tax digest information from the Tax Commissioner we will finalize those dates for any required hearings and final adoption of the millage rate.”

No one commented on Harlow’s warning that they might have to have a tax increase hearing before adoption of the millage rate in August.

“Based on your conversations with the Tax Commissioner’s Office,” Burgess asked, “you still expect us to be able to set the millage rate with the digest that’s on the schedule you presented?”

Harlow said she thought that was correct.

Citizen Comment

No citizens spoke at either the May 9 or June 6 regular meetings of the Board of Education. Citizens are not allowed to speak at work sessions, which the May 2 meeting was.

Only one person spoke at the either of the two public hearings on the budget, held on May 16 an 23.

The minutes show that Jeff Hood spoke at the first hearing on May 16, but they do not give any indication of what he said.

The two hearings also were not video recorded.

I asked Hood in an email what he told the Board.

“I spoke at the first budget hearing and thanked the board for their role in OC being the top school system in the state and added that I believe their 2023 budget will be well spent to continue this trend,” he replied.

Relief Fund Spending

At the June 6 meeting, Harlow also gave a report on spending of federal relief funds under the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) program.

From Harlow's Report 6/6/2022

Harlow said that the ESSER III funds were initially approved on July 21, 2021, granting Oconee County Schools $3.3 million to be spent in response to the pandemic.

Based on the report presented to the Board, Oconee County Schools has or will spend $21,530 (0.6 percent) of the funds on Disinfectant Spray and Equipment, and $56,375 (1.7 percent) on Classroom Supplies.

Spending for Counseling and Social Services is $365,756 (10.9 percent), and Learning Recovery is $795,761 ($23.8 percent).

Harlow said Learning Resources spending “includes learning platforms, learning resources, instructional software, and instructor fees.”

Oconee County schools has spent more than half of the ESSER III money on items it had already planed to purchase before the pandemic. Included are School Buses, with $393,818 (11.8 percent), and Technology, $1,436,787 (43.0 percent)

Harlow said the Technology category “includes student Chromebooks, teacher laptops, service costs for wi-fi rangers.”

Oconee County Schools spent $272,222 (8.1 percent) for a salary supplement for system employees not covered by a one-time grant from the state.

“We have expended over 90 percent of the grant, and the information before you is how we plan to finish out the entirety of ESSER III,” Harlow said.


Oconee County Schools will not allow me to embed the video from its YouTube site on this blog.

It is possible to use the embed code, however, which produces the warning note and then leads to the video on the YouTube site. Just click on the link to the YouTube site.

I have embedded the video code for the meetings on May 2, May 9, and June 6 below, in that order.

Harlow begins his presentation on the budget at 23:01 in the May 2 video.

She begins her comments to the Board at 21:24 in the May 9 video.

And in the June 6 video, she began her comments at 45:13.

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